It would in any case be a challenge with capital letters, the European Championship match of the Dutch handball team against Denmark on Monday. The Danes are reigning world champions and were finalists at the Olympic Games in Tokyo last summer. At the European championship in Hungary and Slovakia, the team is still unbeaten after five matches, a new title beckons. A bonus match, that’s for sure, for the now battered Dutch handball selection, which made it to the second round at a European Championship for the first time in history. “The first harvest,” says technical director Sjors Röttger of the Dutch Handball Association (NHV). “But we want more.”
The meeting with Denmark unfortunately has to miss the top scorer of the tournament Kay Smits. With two other players, he tested positive for the corona virus after the win against Montenegro (34-30) on Saturday evening. The Dutch team can put together an ‘insulation team’ after almost two weeks; including trainer, because national coach Erlingur Richardsson, an Icelander, also turned out to be infected in recent days. The selection changes daily. New, sometimes inexperienced players are flown in. “It has become a Covid European Championship,” says Röttger.
New round of infection
Yet there is rarely a cross word from the Dutch camp, even after another round of contamination. It is indicative of a team that has already achieved its greatest success. With two great victories over Hungary and Portugal, and a narrow defeat against Iceland, the Netherlands surprisingly finished second in group B.
Man of the match Thijs van Leeuwen
Thijs van Leeuwen was named man of the match against Montenegro (34-30), in his second international match ever, on Saturday. The 34-year-old goalkeeper was flown in from the Netherlands due to corona infections. “I was still working on Friday morning when they called,” said medical designer Van Leeuwen. “I dropped everything from my hands and came. It is sour for those other and younger goalkeepers that they are in isolation, but I will do everything I can to help the team.”
“It is very nice to see that the boys are now achieving this,” says former international Tim Remer. He was still there two years ago, when the Netherlands made its debut at the European Championship. At the time, the Dutch team got no further than a victory over Latvia, Germany and Spain were much stronger in the group. Remer stopped playing handball at the end of that season and now follows the performance of his former teammates from the living room. “You can see that everyone has developed further in the two years since,” he says.
The surprise is not only in the placement for the next round, but also in the game of the Netherlands itself. Many of the top countries in handball go for strength, prefer to put their physically strongest players in one-on-one situations and hope to score. “That is more of a static game,” says Henk Groener, former national coach of the Dutch handball players and now national coach of the German women. He calls it beautiful handball, which the Netherlands has shown so far at this European Championship. Lots of pace and lots of moving players. “That makes it attractive to look at,” says Groener.
According to technical director Röttger, the change in gameplay has been going back for some time. To indicate the starting point of the current success, he refers to the handball vision that he developed with others for the handball association shortly after the turn of the century. “Before that time, we were copying a lot of what the top countries were doing. We then said: we have to surprise. Therein lies our strength.”
Swift and skilled
But, says Röttger, that requires a certain type of players. The national men’s team now has this in the person of playmaker Luc Steins, with 1.72 meters one of the smaller players in men’s handball. Quick, surprising and skilful with the ball. “Almost elusive for his opponent,” says Röttger.
The 26-year-old Steins, who plays at the French top club Paris Saint-Germain, sets out the lines in the Dutch team and is a fixed value in the attack plan of national coach Richardsson. The Icelander has been in charge of the men’s team since 2017 and, in line with the vision of the association, is based on the qualities in his selection.
“At a certain point we got some other types of players,” Remer says about his time with the national team. Less physical, more agility. “The national coach then made it very clear how he wanted to play. A system with a lot of walking actions and a lot of movement. The opponent should not be able to figure out what we were planning.”
The Dutch handball players, with goalkeeper Thijs van Leeuwen (blue shirt), after the victory over Montenegro, in Budapest on Saturday. Photo Tamas Kovacs/AP
But to be able to compete with top countries, a certain minimum level is also needed in the selection. Because more players are active abroad in better quality competitions, the overall level of the Dutch selection has increased in a short time. “Many players in the starting line-up during the European Championship now have experience in the highly regarded German Bundesliga,” says Groener. “More and more boys who have just completed this are also playing abroad. Others can pick up on that.”
Nevertheless, according to Remer, now coach of the first women’s team of HV SVBO from Emmen, there is still room for improvement. Against Olympic champion France, it became clear last Thursday what it really takes to win from those kinds of countries. “They have at least two top players in every position,” says Remer.
That is partly why the European Championship matches that the Dutch handball players play in Hungary are important, says Röttger. „You have to make progress as a team, play matches against opponents who are just that little bit better. Step by step up.” He even sees an advantage in the number of positive corona tests in the selection. “Now other, often younger players are already gaining experience in a final tournament.”
Röttger thinks that the handball players succeed in qualifying for the main round precisely at the European Championships. “The Olympic tournament is actually the easiest, then the World Cup,” he says. Because Europe is by far the strongest handball continent, the European Championship is automatically the strongest occupied tournament.
And the success has another advantage. The game and the results so far at this European Championship give the Netherlands more status in the handball world. “We are now going to be invited to competitions,” Röttger thinks. “Everyone wants to play against us now.”